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Iraq's Wadi Al-Salam: The Largest Cemetry in the World

Dating back to the early middle ages, this Iraqi cemetery holds the remains of kings, dignitaries, scholars, and soldiers alike.

Wadi Al-Salam, which means ‘Valley of Peace’ in Arabic, is a necropolis in which every Shiite Muslim hopes to be buried some day, in the belief that it is these burial grounds that will hold eternal peace for them. Located in the Iraqi city of Najaf, Wadi Al-Salam is a cemetery that dates back to the early middle ages, hosting the remains of kings, dignitaries, scholars, and soldiers alike.

Every year, an estimated 50,000 Shiite Muslims are buried in this hallowed ground. The cemetery stretches across 1500 acres, taking up almost 13% of the city, and allegedly holds over six million bodies.  The necropolis, however, isn’t just a morbidly beautiful burial ground. Rather, each tombstone contains a name and an engraving that paints a vivid timeline of Iraq’s (arguably tragic) history, with a hyperfocus on internal  disputes, natural disasters, and wars.

In 1981, Rahim Jabr, an Iraqi foot soldier, was martyred in the eight-year war with Iran. 25 years later, his brother, Naeem Jabr, was a casualty of the sectarian civil war that killed hundreds in Baghdad in 2006. The siblings are buried next to each other, united in the necropolis that holds many others whose stories are eternally intertwined with that of the bloody history of this country.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its subsequent conflicts alone led to the graveyard expanding by over 40% (7.5 square kilometres)  to contain the bodies of the martyred Shiites. Wadi Al-Salam has been the responsibility of a single Shiite family for over three centuries, and the Abu Seiba’s stand testament to the cruelty of war, having carried hundreds of thousands of bodies belonging to their brethren into the ground.

Wadi Al-Salam is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been since 2011, as the cemetery stands witness to thousands of years of history, religious tradition and dedication by Shiite Muslims.